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The Unsettling Rise of the Urban Narc App

It’s getting easier for city residents to use technology that can report bad drivers who block bike lanes. Welcome to the self-surveillance era of traffic safety.
Want to report drivers blocking bike lanes? There are apps for that.
Want to report drivers blocking bike lanes? There are apps for that.Matt Rourke/AP

Say you spot a truck blocking a bike lane in San Francisco’s Mission District. Using a new app called Safe Lanes, you can snap a picture of the offending vehicle’s license plate, and beam it up to a constantly refreshing, GPS-coded map. Meanwhile, Safe Lanes will take your image and run it through a license plate reader. Then, it will use the ID to automatically fill out a complaint form and submit it directly to the city’s non-emergency 311 service. If you’re lucky, officials will respond swiftly, and the vehicle will be towed, or the driver will be given a citation. You’ll also get a list of all the previous traffic tickets and citations the offending vehicle has earned. The bike lane will be clear, someone will (hopefully) learn their lesson, and you’ll get some satisfying closure that leaves a positive—potentially life-saving—mark on society.

On Valencia Street, Safe Lanes users have documented Priuses and delivery trucks and pickups and Ubers blocking the bike lanes every few feet. Seeing those violations (represented by red or yellow exclamation points) on an ever-updating map offers a powerful visual reminder of the safety crisis on city streets: Bike lanes are being ignored, bicyclists and pedestrians are being killed by drivers, and cities are failing to live up to the Vision Zero pledges they’ve made. With an app like this, citizens are equipped with tools that can hold drivers accountable for risky behavior—and cities get the data they need to build better bike infrastructure.